In June 1971, exactly 50 years ago at Edgbaston cricket ground at Birmingham in England, the bespectacled Zaheer Abbas gave the first flash of his illustrious cricketing career .His monumental 274 was amongst cricket’s classics taking aestheticism to regions of the sublime. For nine hours, ten minutes spectators were virtually put into a trance witnessing the glorious strokes all around the wicket, be it drives cut shots, pull or hook shots. Arguably No Asian cricketer ever took grace to such divine proportions, with the sheer flow in his strokes .The bowling attack was reduced to mere submission, but the ball simply caressed in the manner of a mother putting a ball to sleep. No innings before posed such a threat to the eclipsing of Gary Sobers’ record test score of 365.One literally got vibrations of famous monument being constructed that day or a musical symphony being performed, with Zaheer blending the skill of a surgeon with the creativity of a poet. Sadly it failed to win Pakistan a test, in which they were overwhelmingly superior. His glorious drives executed through cover that day flash in my mind like a Ghazal.
That knock of 274 set the tone for Zaheer’s entire career who was the ultimate master in compiling marathon innings.Zaheer Abbas gave the game of cricket its soul or ethereal beauty. He ressurected cricket’s golden age like no one else. His strokes were a manifestation of the divine, executed with timing of surreal proportions and magical touch.In my view for sheer style and elegance no batsman ever surpassed Zaheer Abbas.,who held a bat like a wand. No batsman as gloriously drove a cricket ball on other side of extra cover or looked more like a painter making curves on board. It is hard to find an adjective to do full justice to the sheer poetry in Zaheer’s batting whose strokes resembled the touches of a painters brush. His mere deft touches would send the best of balls scuttling to the boundary. No batsman possessed the God gifted artistry of a cricketer more. Few batsmen ever took inventiveness to such mystical regions. Even when desecrating a bowling attack to pieces his strokes never lost the elements of composure or technique, like a boxer, poet and surgeon rolled into one. No batsman touched the core of your soul more than Zaheer who conjured up visions of reflection of moonlight in water.
Technically he was master, with shades of unorthodoxy because of his great inventive capability. Few batsman were better positioned when driving as Zaheer,who exhibited a flow that at times looked surreal. At his best he could improvise like a magician. He was an absolute master against fast-medium and spin bowling. Zaheer bewildered the purists with his very high back lift, with his bat coming down at the very last moment, to send ball crashing to the fence which looked inevitably like piercing the gate.
Like all great players, his method was most uncomplicated with most rhythmic synchronization of body movements in the manner of a ballad dancer. It was based first on correct footwork, positioning himself perfectly to the length and line of each delivery. His backswing opposed the purists with its unorthodoxy, but his bat traversed the most vertical path, pleasing the most accurate geometrician..His power was obtained from his semi-circular high backlift, effervescent timing and subtle twist of the blade of the bat at the moment of impact. It is the blending of his wristiness, with a free follow-through that made his batting blossom like a lotus. In the manner of a ballad dancer he could move backwards and forwards in the execution of a single stroke. When watching him, I was constantly reminded of a Ghazal sung by Jasjit.
PERFORMANCES OF ZAHEER ABBAS IN HIS CRICKETING CAREER
The most illustrative moments of Zaheer Abbas’s test match career were his 2 double hundreds in England, scoring a 240 at the Oval in 1974 after his Edgbaston double hundred. For sheer virtuosity few double centuries ever surpassed his 2nd double hundred which was compiled in a most majestic manner.
Zaheer had his most impactful and majestic aura playing against India at home in 1978-79 and 1982-83 arguably no batsman bated more like Bradman as Zaheer.He averaged 195 ,scoring 583 runs in 1978-79 while in 1982-93 scored 3 centuries at an average of 130 runs and aggregate of 650 runs. I simply don’t have words to describe the magnitude of his destructiveness or the extent he tormented the Indian bowlers. One was reminded of an invincible emperor submitting an enemy kingdom to utter humiliation. Rarely have I seen a bowling attack look so subordinated or depleted as India’s in that series. Still his batting lost no element of it’s majestic grace be it at Karachi in 1982-83 when scoring 186 or when scoring 235 not out at Lahore in 1978-79.Never did I see a batsman look most unlikely to get out.Zaheer performed the equivalent of a surgical operation of an army but executed with the touch of a scupltor.or sweetness of a musical symphony.
In the unofficial games playing for rest of the world against Australia in 1971-72 Zaheer gave flashes of his brilliance when scoring 86 facing Dennis Lillee at his fastest at Melbourne,51 at Perth and 73 at AdelaideHe also scored a cracking century against Western Australia.These scores spoke for itself of his sparkling talent.I can’t forget his supporting roles to classic innings of Gary Sobers at Melbourne and Rohan Kanhai at Perth.
His best batting against genuine pace bowling was In 1976-77 in Australia Zaheer was an epitome of consistency on the fast, green Australian strips with scores of 85,101,90 and 58 in the first 2 tests. Few batsman ever drove the great Denis Lillee with such relish. Overall he averaged a remarkable 57.16 in that series, with an aggregate of 343 runs.
In Australia he was again successful against the pace bowlers in 1981-82 and was at his best in limited overs cricket. In 2 tests he had scores of 80 and 90 and averaged above 56, facing high class pace bowling. In the ODI’s of the triangular tournament Zaheer gave an exhibition of some of finest batting ever seen in limited overs cricket ,with his 108 against Australia ,a true masterpiece. I can’t forget the skill with which he bissected the most impregnable gaps, even against the great West Indians.
.In the 1979 Prudential world cup in the semi-final Zaheer took the all-conquering West Indies pace attack to the sword scoring 93 in the semi-final. , dissecting the bowling as clinically as a surgeon performing an operation. A stroke he flicked over deep square leg for a six is embedded in my memories. Rarely have I seen such express pace deliveries, merely caressed to the fence. In an ODI I have never seen the great West Indies pace quartet subjected to such embarrassment or bewildered as that day.
The 1983 Prudential world cup saw Zaheer at his best when scoring 82 versus Sri Lanka an unbeaten 83 against England and an unbeaten 103 in a crucial quarter final game against New Zealand. At the age of 35 Zaheer lost none of his wondrous timing or touch. His partnership with Imran Khan in the final league game played major role in paving Pakistan’s path to the semi-final. Zaheer averaged over 60 in the tournament which was commendable.
He was also consistency personified in a home series against Australia in 1982, averaging above 91, including a century. In 1982 his 75 played an instrumental role in paving the way for Pakistan to win their 1st ever test at Lords. I also have memories of his classy 85 scored on a testing pitch at Nagpur in 1983 ,which came close to winning the game for his country against India.
However his career also had bouts of inconsistency, and Zaheer Abbas did not relish express pace bowling or fast wickets. He averaged a mere 17 against West Indies in his test career, with 80 at Georgetown in 1977 his only notable score against them and a 91 in a WSC supertests..Zaheer also was not at his best in Australia in 1972-73, England in 1982 or New Zealand in 1973 or 1984.Zaheer was shackled by a bouncer from Colin Croft in Pakistan in 1980,which crippled his batting against sustained pace bowling. He lost form to such a considerable extent on the 1979-80 tour of India that he felt that God had cast a spell over him. Often in a crisis Zaheer did not come out on top like Majid Khan,Asif Iqbal or Wasim Raja, when the chips were down. In crucial junctures he suffered loss of form, when he could have turned the fortunes of Pakistan cricket.
SUMMARY OF ZAHEER ABBAS CRICKETING CAREER IN TEST, ODI AND FIRST CLASS CRICKET
In First class Cricket statistically Zaheer Abbas had Bradmanesque overtones, taking batting domination to magical heights. He was a virtual incarnate of a Jack Hobbs,WG Grace or Denis Compton in his quest for scoring. No Overseas batsman displayed such an appetite for runs or staggered them at such a brisk rate as Zaheer who was the ultimate epitome of run accumulation. Zaheer was the only batsman ever to score a hundred in each innings of match on 8 occasions or score a century and a double century in the same match 4 times. In 1976 he scored 2554 run sat 75.11 while in 1981 averaged 88.69.In 1981 he scored 100- run sin amere 27 days in June.,whih only Len Hutton nad Mike Smith had achieved after the war.Zaheer reached the landmark of 100 centuries in a mere 658 innings, faster than icons like Jack Hobbs or Viv Richards. Many of those centuries wee scored against high class International bowlers. In pure first class cricket Zaheer Abbas statistically is better than stalwarts like Viv Richards or Greg Chappell. His greed for runs resembled the expansionist ambitions of great emperors like Julius Caesar or Alexander.Zaheer simply scripted essay after essay. Arguably no overseas batsman in English first class cricket plundered runs with the aura of an invincible emperor to the degree of Zaheer.Overall he scored 34,843 runs at an average of 51.54 with 108 centuries.He achieved the landmark of scoring over 1000 runs in a single English season 11 times’ must mention his classical century scored on the most treacherous of turning pitches against Kent, facing Derek Underwoood.
In test cricket he averaged 44.79 scoring 5062 runs in 79 tests, with 12 centuries and 20 fifties.. However in he averaged only 31.77 overseas with 4 centuries as compared to 58.19 at home with 8 centuries .Overseas he was outstanding only in England where he averaged around 56.In test matches won Zaheer averaged 58.84 which is creditable.
In ODI’s Zaheer Abbas scored at an average of 47.62 with 2572 runs with 7 centuries and 13 fifties I rate him the 2nd best batsman of his day to Viv Richards in that form of cricket. Few batsmen ever were a greater personification of consistency as Zaheer,who was even prolific against top pace. Rarely have I seen batsman improvise better than Zaheer in an ODI,who exuded the wizardry of a magician. I would select Zaheer amongst my 10 best ODI batsmen of all time
EVALUATION OF ZAHEER ABBAS OVERALL
To me Zaheer Abbas was the most complete of all Pakistani batsmen. in the complete package of technical skill with strokemaking.He did not possess the lightning reflexes of Majid Khan or Inzamam Ul Haq against top pace and was vulnerable to the short ball. Nor did he possess the watertight defence of Hanif Mohammad or the combativeness of Javed Miandad.The likes of Wasim Raja and Majid Khan were ever consistent against West Indies at their best averaging over 50 on their soil in 1977.Zaheer Abbas lacked the guts or determination of Javed Miandad or Asif Iqbal in a crisis, who made much more impact in ressurecting Pakistan from the depths of despair. Still no Pakistan batsman so proportionately blended the grace of an antelope running, with the skill of an architect and creativity of a poet. A Zaheer Abbas stroke defined cricketing skill or batting perfection at its highest zenith.
Overall I would rank Zaheer as the third best Pakistani batsman of all time, behind Javed Miandad and Hanif Mohammad. Considering only test cricket Inzamam Ul Haq and Mohamad Younus may edge Zaheer by a whisker.I feel the conditions so conducive to batsmen in modern times inflate the true merit of batsman compared to the eras before 2000.Thus even if Inzamam averaged around 50 or Mohammad Yousuf above 50 ,I do not overall rate them higher than Zaheer Abbas.
Did Zaheer Abbas rank amongst the all-time great batsmen? In pure test cricket I feel he missed out by a whisker on being classed as ‘truly great.’ I feel to be bracketed as an all-time great in test cricket Zaheer should have come to the party more against genuine pace, when his team was facing a crisis and on bad wickets. I would club Zaheer Abbas with batsman like Gundappa Vishwanath ,Mark Waugh and Mohammad Azharrudin and not bracket him with a Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar. True that Zaheer could dominate even good length balls coming on to the bat more than greats like Greg Chappell and in the degree of Viv Richards, but he often fell prey to a delivery pitched up to his nose He manipulated the gap with the wizardry of a magician but could be found wanting against the moving ball..Where he fell out was on temperament and to battle in a crisis. In his era I would place Zaheer amongst the top 6 batsmen of in test cricket, behind the likes of Viv and Barry Richards, both the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg and Sunil Gavaskar. I often wonder why inspite of having such volumes of talent Zaheer did not play great pace bowling with the assurance of players like Vishwanath, David Gower or Inzamam Ul Haq. It is a challenge for sports psychologists to know why inspite of being endowed with such talent and technical skill , Zaheer was suspect against express pace
Still on flat pitches or batting strips or against spin bowling I would class Zaheer in the class of the very greatest. In his era I would place Zaheer amongst the top 6 batsmen of in test cricket, behind the likes of Viv and Barry Richards, both the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg and Sunil Gavaskar. In his era I would place Zaheer amongst the top 6 batsmen of in test cricket, behind the likes of Viv and Barry Richards, both the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg and Sunil Gavaskar. At his best in 1978-79 I would have chosen Zaheer Abbas in my world XI. It must be mentioned that at his best Zaheer gave flashes of brilliance on the green, bouncy Australian strips on 3 tours there.
In my view combining his ODI and first class performances with those of test cricket Zaheer could carve a place amongst the all-time great batsmen.He will also find a place in my 100 greatest cricketers of all time and 40 best batsmen of all.
Fast bowler Michael Holding, Former Indian cricketer Ravi Shastri,late cricket commentator Cristopher Martin Jenkins,Spin bowler Derek Underwood and South African all-rounder Mike Procter classed Zaheer as an all-time great.Shastri went to the extent of rating Zaheer as the best ever Pakistani batsman. Javed Miandad chose Zaheer at one down position in his world test XI. Derek Underwood chose Zaheer amongst the 3 best batsmen he ever bowled to. Cricket writer Keith Ball classed Zaheer as the most unselfish of batsman who made every stroke a thing of beauty itself. Cricketing expert David Green described him as the handsomest stroke maker he ever saw,
In 1979 Sir Garfield Sobers rated Zaheer as the 6th best batsman in the world. On the other hand cricketing great Imran Khan felt Zaheer just missed out on that accolade and so did Patrick Murphy.Zaheer was testimony to how supreme stylists or technician sare let down by sheer lack of temperament .It is a challenge for sports psychologists to know why inspite of being endowed with such talent and technical skill , Zaheer was suspect against express pace.
As a captain he was ultra-defensive, but still led Pakistan to win their first ever series against England in 1984. He also led Pakistan to draw a rubber against all odds in India in 1983 and to a home serine victory against New Zealand in 1984.Away he faced a humiliating loss as a skipper in Australia in 1983-84, but all but led his side to a drawn series against New Zealand in 1985.
What I admired about him was the grace and gentlemanly spirit he brought to the game I appreciated his kind treatment to India unlike other Pakistani stars. He always showered great praise on Sunil Gavaskar or even Gundappa.Vishwanath in his time and ranked Sachin Tendulkar as the best batsman of all time. Today he even tells Pakistanis to emulate Virat Kohli.I can’t forget the friendship he developed with Indian stalwarts like Bishen Bedi or Gavaskar.He played a positive role in the establishing of cordial relations of Indian players with their counterparts from Pakistan. At one stage he even gave generous advice to Indian star Azharuddin in how to change his grip the bat, after he had suffered reversal in form. Zaheer’s advice to Azhar worked wonders. I have also admired his views on the game and the selection of his alltime XI where he has chosen likes of Sobers,Tendulkar, Lara, Hadlee and Wasim As a coach he played an important role in shaping Pakistan to rekindle glimpses of its glory of yesteryears. Today in interviews and public reception he exudes the same grace of his playing days. Sadly he often fell a victim to the politics of Pakistan cricket and his efforts. It also pains me when I remember his tussles with Imran Khan and Javed Miandad for captaincy and his being unceremoniously dropped in early 19785 from the national team.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com